Port Angeles Police Chief Brian Smith said legislators need to pass a stronger vehicle pursuit law. (Paul Gottlieb/For Peninsula Daily News)

Port Angeles Police Chief Brian Smith said legislators need to pass a stronger vehicle pursuit law. (Paul Gottlieb/For Peninsula Daily News)

Vehicle pursuit law hits speed bump

Proponents work to get bills out of committee

By Paul Gottlieb

Special to Peninsula Daily News

OLYMPIA — Legislative efforts by police chiefs and sheriffs to toughen a 2021 vehicle pursuit law hit roadblocks this week as state lawmakers scrambled to salvage the measure.

They postponed key committee votes from Thursday to Feb. 16 on House Bill 1363, which would make it easier to apprehend suspects, and HB 1586, which would have the state Criminal Justice Training Commission establish a work group to study pursuit measures but keep the 2021 restrictions in place. It includes a grant program for pursuit management technology.

The CJTC would issue a report by Dec. 1.

HB 1363 is cosponsored by state Rep. Mike Chapman of Port Angeles, a Democrat whose 24th District includes Clallam and Jefferson counties and the Hoquiam half of Grays Harbor County.

Chapman said it’s too early to say the pursuit legislation is dead, recalling the House voting last year to give back authority to law enforcement for pursuits, a measure the Senate did not vote on.

“I’m hopeful we figure out something that moves the legislation out of one of the committees,” the former U.S. Customs inspector said.

“It would be a shame to not give [law enforcement] the tools back that they tell us they need to keep us safe, and to do the job they need to chase people down. As of right now, I want to support the bill that I sponsored.”

HB 1363 would lower the probable cause threshold for vehicle pursuits to reasonable suspicion.

Courts have defined probable cause, written into the Fourth Amendment, as “sufficient reason based upon known facts to believe a crime has been committed or that certain property is connected with a crime (dictionary.law.com).

In 1968, the Supreme Court determined in Terry vs. Ohio that an officer may stop a person without probable cause believing with reasonable suspicion the person has committed, is committing or is about to commit a crime and if the officer has a reasonable belief that the person “may be armed and presently dangerous.(supreme.justia.com).”

That suspicion mush be more than a hunch but based on “the specific reasonable inferences which he is entitled to draw from the facts in light of his experience (law.cornell.edu).”

HB 1363 also eliminates imminent threat as a requirement for pursuit and removes supervisory authorization and control.

The pursuit law is more in limbo than alive in the House Community Safety, Justice and Reentry Committee.

“1363 in its current form has no chance of passing out of my committee,” Chair Roger Goodman said in an interview, criticizing what he said is its allowance for chases for any criminal offense.

Goodman, who is sponsoring the working group bill, said it is good policy to allow for pursuits of serious crimes, but not for shoplifting and vehicle theft, an inherently dangerous chase, the danger of police chases being a main reason for the 2021 law.

Sen. Manka Dinghra refused to schedule a hearing on the bill’s Senate companion, SB 5352, allowing it to expire in her Senate Law & Justice Committee.

In an interview, she cited a drop in vehicle-pursuit deaths resulting from the 2021 rules.

Port Angeles Police Chief Brian Smith said drivers suspected of crimes are already stoppable under the reasonable suspicion standard based on such factors as driving behavior.

“Making the rest of the crimes we can interdict at the reasonable suspicion level would put us closer to normal,” Smith said.

“We never absolutely know with probable cause on a traffic stop until we’ve made the stop. So that’s huge.”

Until 2021, pursuit restrictions focused on safety, Smith said.

“In 2021, things got turned on their head, OK? All of a sudden, we’re going to restrict law enforcement based on the type of crime. So if you want to defund the police that’s how you do it. There is no better way than to make it so that we actually have to figure out, is this a crime we can pursue for,” he said.

“Crime happens, literally you are frozen. Defunding means we simply don’t function.

“It’s a complex algorithm we have to figure out in the moment.”

Dinghra said passing the Senate version of the pursuit law, SB 5352, sponsored by former state trooper Sen. John Lovick, would simply imitate what lawmakers in 2021 made clear they wanted to change.

She favored the Senate version of Goodman’s work-group bill, SB 5533, which calls for establishment of a “model” policy for pursuits that would be devised by the CJTC work group.

Dinghra questioned statistics cited by proponents of toughening pursuit guidelines, saying higher stolen-vehicle numbers since the restrictions were passed reflected a national trend regardless of pursuit laws. She said vehicle-pursuit deaths had dropped from 11 in the 18 months before the restrictions to three during the same period afterward.

Both Senate bills are sponsored by Lovick, who acknowledged at the Jan. 30 hearing on the model policy bill that his pursuit law did not have a chance.

“My thought process was that you can’t always get what you want in this business, and I think this is a vehicle, a process of maybe moving in a different direction, and I hope we’ll all be satisfied with the results,” he said.

Testimony at the Senate hearing was roughly split, 123 people signed up in favor of the model-policy work group and three were opposed.

Association of Washington Cities spokesperson Candice Bock said the group supports the work group proposal and the pursuit bill.

“As with others, we don’t think it precludes additional action by the Legislature to address the current restrictions on pursuit,” she said.

She said AWC members were polled, with 62 percent reporting an uptick in individuals pursuing from police.

“[Members] are asking for more immediate action that we think would work well in partnership with provisions of creating a model policy and the grant program funded in this legislation.”

HB 1363 had 40 sponsors evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats.

Most of those who testified favored relaxing law enforcement pursuit restrictions, including several mayors.

“The law has emboldened those committing crimes,” Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell said.

“The 2021 Legislature created this problem, and it’s incumbent upon the 2023 Legislature, we think, to fix it,” said James McMahan, spokesperson for the Washington Association of Sheriff’s and Police Chiefs.

“Being in a car should simply not be a get-out-of-jail-free card. It’s created an incentive to drive more dangerously on our roadways.”

HB 1363 opponent Martina Morris of the Coalition for Police Accountability and Next Steps Washington said rolling back the pursuit protections will not make the public safer.

Morris, a University of Washington sociology and statistics professor, said there’s no evidence the 2021 law caused more motor vehicle thefts, a spike in overall crime, and noncompliance toward officers.

“You should know what these numbers are before you act,” she said.

Goodman said some states including New York, Minnesota and Connecticut allow professionals comparable to those at the Washington’s Criminal Justice Training Commission the job of devising vehicle pursuit policies.

“Accordingly, given all of the contention here, it would be prudent for us to delegate to the experts in a deliberate fashion, but in an expedited fashion,” he told his committee. “We need to fix this as soon as possible.”

Kevin Van De Wege of Port Angeles, the 24th District state senator — a Democrat — cosponsored both of Lovick’s bills and was the main sponsor of the failed Senate bill in 2022 that included the reasonable suspicion standard for vehicle pursuits.

He continued to favor both measures sponsored by Lovick and said he was following Lovick’s lead, given his experience.

It is important for law enforcement “to have those tools” to do their job effectively, he said.

Steve Tharinger, the 24th District state representative from Port Townsend, also a Democrat, said police pursuits are often not safe but conceded it’s problematic the public perceives that criminals are not being apprehended because of the law.

“We need to go back to the pursuit policy that guided pursuits before we passed the legislation and do the study group to see what is the best law, the best policy, long term,” Tharinger said.

“The key is the community needs to feel safe on either side of the blue line, and law enforcement needs to be safe.

“It’s an evolving discussion.”

Jefferson County Sheriff Joe Nole did not return calls for comment on the legislation.

Clallam County Sheriff Brian King said he supports both bills but criticized the probable-cause standard.

“I think these are well intended bills, but they have serious public safety impacts,” he said.

“It’s normal for a vehicle not to stop fur us, and for us not to pursue it. People know we can’t pursue them, and people know they don’t have to stop for police, and it’s led, frankly, to a lawless society.”

King said officers balance the risk of pursuing against the crime.

Under the 2021 law, deputies are forced to watch suspects simply speed away.

“People know that, and criminals know that,” King said.

“It’s not a good balance now.”

________

Legislative Reporter Paul Gottlieb, a former senior reporter at Peninsula Daily News, can be reached at cpaulgottlieb@gmail.com.

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